Dominican Slices her Way into Male-Dominated World of Sushi

María Román is very proud of the reputation she has gained as a chef in the male-dominated world of sushi. (Photo by Zaira Cortés via El Diario-La Prensa)

Steadfast and defiant, María Román succeeded in forming the perfect mold of vinegared rice and delicately sliced pieces of exotic fish. For 17 years, Román, of Dominican origin, has been making sushi, a thousand-year-old tradition reserved exclusively for men.

If it used to be unthinkable for a Japanese woman to become a sushi chef, it would be twice as hard for a Latina, but Román didn’t give in to the refusals of her teacher, Toshihiro Uezu, one of the leading sushi experts in the Big Apple.

The mother of three young women, Román discovered her passion for preparing sushi at Daikichi Sushi restaurant in Lower Broadway, where she cooked rice and prepared rolls with a special machine. But it was at Kurumazushi on East 47th Street where she learned the traditional technique.

How did you start out making sushi at Kurumazushi?

The restaurant where I was working closed, but I liked making sushi so much that I didn’t want to search for a different type of work. I came to Kurumazushi and Maestro Uezu tested my skills during the interview. He watched how I shaped the rice and told me he wasn’t convinced, but I insisted that he give me a chance. He hired me to help out in the kitchen and I had to prove that I was determined enough for him to decide to teach me how to make traditional sushi. It really took me a lot of effort to gain access to this restricted world, I had to be committed and disciplined, Maestro Uezu was looking for a person with a strong attitude.

What did the Japanese clients think when they saw a woman preparing sushi?

In the beginning they were asking for Maestro Uezu to cook for them. They believe that women’s hands are too warm and that the taste of the fish becomes ruined if women touch it, which is why only men prepare sushi.

Years went by before some clients decided to try my sushi. I cried a lot and I had bad experiences, but I didn’t give up. It’s considered a privilege to be behind the bar and it’s something you must earn.

What are your responsibilities? What is a typical day for you?

I receive the eight varieties of fresh fish imported from Japan and it’s my job to insure their quality. Later on I clean about 20 fish weighing between 10 and 12 pounds, the smallest ones because there’s pieces of tuna weighing up to 600 pounds. An important task is to cut the tuna perfectly and to keep it fresh, so it preserves its vivid red color. You never give a client pale tuna. My main job is slicing the fish and making each plate a work of art. Sushi should be pleasant to look at and taste.

You are a chef at one of the most venerable sushi restaurants in the city. How do you feel about that?

I’m very proud of being successful at what used to be considered a privilege restricted to men. It’s my way of showing my daughters that there are no limits and that being a woman isn’t an obstacle to realizing what we desire. We are just as intelligent and talented as men to overcome any challenge, no matter how hard it might be.

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